In an effort to reduce the overcrowding of the nation’s prisons in the midst of the outbreak of COVID-19 in T&T, the decision by the government to free prisoners who pose little danger to the society is a good good one.
It comes as the heads of prisons across the Caribbean agreed to the early release of non-violent and sick and elderly inmates who pose absolutely no threat to society but only serve to increase the concentration of persons in prison.
Hours later Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley also made the announcement at the Ministry of Health’s update on the virus, saying Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi will later work out the details.
The CARICOM release on the decision stated, “Proposals by prison heads to reduce COVID-19 in prions at the meeting included increased screening of staff and prisoners; enhanced information sharing among prisoners and the development of national prison pandemic plans.”
The recommendation was made following a meeting with heads of correctional services and prisons last Wednesday via a video conferencing meeting, the release added.
The meeting also discussed possible ways to keep inmates in touch with their families and loved ones, since visitation rights have been suspended in most countries. The CARICOM IMPACS release said to ease this burden, communication is being facilitated through controlled WhatsApp and Face Time video calls.
The World Health Organisation had for some time now identified prisons as a high risk should the COVID-19 get into the system. Its contagious nature, the fact that thousands of men are kept in close proximity to each other and the often unsanitary nature of prisons in the region multiplies the risk to inmates should someone unfortunately introduce it to the penal system.
It is with this in mind, the Government has to take all reasonable measures to reduce the risk to inmates because COVID-19 in the prison could, on its own, quickly overwhelm the healthcare system.
It is why this newspaper expressed our condemnation of an individual who returned to the country and without adhering to the self quarantine order, decided to go to work which also resulted in him interviewing the Prisons commissioner and interacting with other officers who would have entered the prison to quell a riot.
It appears that although the individual eventually tested positive for COVID-19, so far the Prisons commissioner and prisoners don’t appear to have caught it. It reminds us how the irresponsibility of one person could have had dire consequences for a vulnerable group.
It also raises the need for prison reform which must go hand in hand with criminal justice reform.
We need to find a better way to ensure that offenders pay their debt to society and those they have harmed but in seeking justice we must ensure it is even handed.